Future of newspapers: Down the pan?

By The Drum, Administrator

May 8, 2008 | 11 min read

Brian Wilson, as a former MP, is a man known for his strong views. However, he is perhaps not as well known for his links to the newspaper business. He spoke out to warn that the future of the industry is in peril.

The first newspaper I ever worked on was the Greenock Journal, which was reputed to be the last newspaper in the UK to have a telephone installed,” says Brian Wilson, signifying the length of time he’s been involved in journalism.

Having studied at University College, Cardiff on the first official UK course to offer a journalism degree, he can legitimately claim, and does, to “have been around since journalism was first accepted as an academic subject in the UK”.

He went onto become the founding editor and publisher of the West Highland Free press, in 1971 and was reporting on the Western Isles long before the BBC had a presence there. He still keeps close ties with the paper.

Since then Wilson has also spent 18 years as a Labour MP in Westminster, eight of them serving as a Government MP, at one stage serving as Minister for Trade.

But Wilson clearly has both a great deal of knowledge and sympathy for the industry of which he began his career.

“We’ve all grown up with the assumption that newspapers are an integral part of our society and the way in which it views itself. As a course for both good and ill, they remain indestructibly influential. The question of whether they will continue to exist and whether or not it matters has implications that go far beyond the length and breadth of our own particular industry. The decline of newspapers is both real and rapid,” he says.

Wilson was speaking at his inaugural lecture at Caledonian University, where he has bee installed as a visiting professor. To mark the occasion his audience included the like of as Charles McGhee, editor of The Herald, Richard Walker, editor of The Sunday Herald, Jeff Zycinski, head of BBC Radio Scotland, and John McGurk, former editor of The Scotsman. They would have been particularly interested in his theme: ‘The Future of Newspapers’.

The ambition

On his first meeting with a journalism class at the University, he says that he asked the 20 or so students how many held the ambition to work in newspapers. Only two raised their hands which he says is a prime example of a problem that newspapers face in the future.

“Another indicator that I can relate to personally involves the idea of starting a newspaper. A generation ago when the West Highland Free press began, it was a very widespread ambition. A generation ago there was an underground press and alternative press, a whole host of annual press initiatives. It’s now been years since I heard anyone talk about starting a newspaper. Even if the initiative and motivation existed, the obvious route involves online media through a blog or a website which is the alternative option of this and future generations. What this means essentially is that no newspapers are likely to be born and slowly but surely the medium will die. We only need to look to the United States to find out what is coming our own way.”

He goes onto cite a recent survey which reported that only 19 percent of 18-34 years claim to even look at a daily newspaper, while the average age of newspaper readers is over 55.

Downward trends

This trend is happening all around the world with many a big hitter seeing a steady decline in circulation. What happens to Scottish titles the downward trends – seen in places like the US. He cites Phillip Meyer’s statement in his book, ‘The Vanishing Newspaper’ that the final newspaper will be delivered to someone’s doorstep on 2043, as very much a possibility.

Despite this, Wilson still believes the circulation figures of Scottish papers is “hugely impressive in a small newspaper market”, and believes that Scotland defies the naysayers who claim that the newspaper will die anytime soon in this country.

However, he points out it is now “extraordinary” to recall that over most of his life, some Scottish publications sold in excess of a million copies per issue.

According to Wilson, The Scottish Daily Express was, until the late 60’s “a mighty force in the land”, selling more than 650 thousand copies a day and employing huge sums of journalists. The Daily Record hit well over three quarters of a million until 20 years ago, while its sister paper, The Sunday Mail and also The Sunday Post reached around a million copies per week until circulation decline became the norm throughout the industry.

According to latest circulation figures, The Daily Record is down to 389,000, the Sunday Mail is 459,000 and The Sunday Post is 400,000, with 30 per cent of that figure sold outside of Scotland.

“The trend is inescapable,” he continues, even if the numbers are still high. “These three titles are down more than five percent in the last year alone, The Sun is now Scotland’s biggest daily sellers and it only retains its volume through relentless price cutting and free gift schemes which are probably unsustainable in the longer term.”

If he has concerns about the future of tabloid newspapers, Wilson predicts an even bleaker future for the broadsheet papers of Scotland, The Herald and The Scotsman.

“If the tabloids are experiencing the problems, the broadsheets are plummeting,” he says. “Having piqued at close to 130,000, The Herald is now not reaching much more than half that figures at 66,000 at the last count. Having touched 100,000 under Andrew Neil’s editorship through an expensive and entirely unsustainable exercise in cost cutting, The Scotsman is now down to 50,000 and falling at the rate of eight percent annually. John McGurk, former editor of The Scotsman is even more pessimistic in a Scottish context than Phillip Meyer in the US. He’s predicted that both The Herald and The Scotsman will disappear by 2018 at the outside. Such a prediction is unproveable one way or another. I very much hope that we’re wrong, but the trend is indisputable.”

Later in his speech, Wilson asks that old question; should these two great Scottish broadsheets merge to become one operation serving the East and West coasts?

“The answer is of course, ‘yes’,” he said, “but only if this can be achieved under a different ownership and control to the one that currently prevails. If the opportunity again arises, I believe that either way it should be seized and the retraction of the newspaper market should provide the opportunity for making that case.”

Advertising revenue

The relationship between the decline in circulation figures and advertising revenue is also key to the future of newspapers, and both are in steady decline. Wilson believes that if papers are unable to turn around the circulation figures then advertising revenue will continue to diminish.

This is especially true in the area of recruitment and property, where the broadsheets were the first stop for advertisers. This is now no longer the case.

“I’m not privy to the proportions of advertising revenues that comes from the public sector, but they are clearly substantial and this means that the economic wealth of these newspaper now hangs on two decisions. The first is on public sector advertising, particularly for employment vacancies and frankly it surprises me that this has continued to flourish to the extent that it still does when arguably a small notice to interested parties on the appropriate website would serve much the same purpose.”

The rise of the internet and its low cost advertising platform is another area that is swallowing up newspaper revenue, as a whole new audience is drawn to online through its free content and seemingly limitless space. Wilson cites the threat of American site, Craig’s List.

With just 24 staff it operates worldwide and adds 50m new classified ads each month. It has effectively decimated the newspaper classified market in the US, and already has an – albeit not yet popular – site serving Glasgow.

“As long as one major player makes newspaper its primary vehicle for advertising, then the rest will probably follow. But the same logic works in the other direction. If one market leader decides to place all his faith in the internet, then the decision has been taken for the whole sector. The truth is, with circulation figures in decline and advertising no longer held by the press as a dominant vehicle, this acute vulnerability to a very small number of hard nosed commercial decisions which was inconceivable just a few years ago, is now very real.”

According to Wilson, the threat of the internet is unlike anything to have ever come up against the newspaper industry before, taking both its readership and advertisers in one fell swoop. Although he also claims that there is now a general apathy between the younger audience, which is not interested in news or current affairs, be it through printed or online channels.

“The idea of advertising being able to break away from newspapers to another, much cheaper medium is recent and highly dangerous,” continues Wilson, who believes that ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ is very much the only response from newspapers. He highlights both The Herald and The Scotsman’s websites as “first class, full of content, easily accessible, and at least in the case of The Herald, free.”

The need for content to be free has become the conundrum that newspapers and magazines have yet to solve; how to make money from free content is a puzzle which is still very far away from being resolved.

But despite the threat it poses, Wilson is no Luddite. He also sees the internet as a huge opportunity.

Conventional media

Contrary to the view that the internet, by reducing newspaper readership, is leading to a class of the politically disengaged he argues: “The internet should be thanked for keeping people in the loop, to at least a modest degree.

“But it also creates the potential, as never before, for national campaigns to gain momentum without any support from political establishments or recognition from conventional media.”

The potential of the internet as a research resource is also awesome, as long as those researching are wary of its potential for inaccuracy (although the same can also be said of certain newspaper titles too.)

Wilson is clear that the death of the newspaper will be merely a matter of time, and that this will be a great loss to society. In terms of its ability to aid the democratic process alone, he believes that public money should be spent to ensure that Scotland’s newspapers survive and are given the freedom to question and investigate as before.

“If newspapers are to survive, they must first define what public interest is and then protect it, which furthers the point that state support of newspapers in some form or another will become more necessary. We should be looking around the world for example where Governments have led ways to ensure the survival of its press in the interests of democracy itself.”

As budgets have been cut, and journalists are being pushed for more copy, written to tighter deadlines, quality has been affected. The internet is responsible for a great deal in creating this new world of ‘churnalism’.

“The case for the internet as a substitute for newspapers is strong indeed,” continues Wilson. “So too is the counter case.

“The printed word is too important to be dismissed lightly. At their best, newspapers are educators and informers. They are a necessary link to the democratic process, they are investigators of corruption and exposures of injustice. They are the source of great writing and a sign of the times in which they were published and before I get carried away with this sad eulogy, I stress the words ‘at their best’ which leaves a lot of room for other critiques.”

It is clear that the industry still has a lot of questions to ask, but isn’t sure it will receive the answers it desires, or indeed needs in order to continue. Newspapers are already set to report on their own demise.


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